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Model Apartment Helps Students Transition to Life

Collin Binkley, Columbus Dispatch

Model Apartment Helps Students Transition to LifeNew school program goes great lengths to replicate independent living

In a classroom that feels like it was yanked from a model apartment, Kayla Tull practices opening jars and pouring a pitcher with only her right hand. They're skills she'll need to live on her own.

Matching appliances frame one side of the granite kitchen counter, only a few steps from the dining table and the den area, with its leather sofa and carefully placed decor -- all in a room where students once sat at desks and learned biology.

It's the kind of space that Tull, 20, would like to call home one day, which was the goal when Gahanna Lincoln High School officials hired workers to clear the room and remodel it for the program that serves students with multiple disabilities.

"What we're supposed to be doing is transitioning kids from their life at school to what their life will be after school," said Cheryl Kemph, a teacher in the program.

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Going to that length to replicate independent living is uncommon, but it reflects a renewed drive to prepare disabled students for work or college, said David Test, co-director of the National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center, an advisory group funded by the federal government.

Traditionally, schools have used home-economics rooms, often just a kitchen, to teach cooking skills to disabled students, Test said. But more schools are realizing that isn't enough.

High schools in districts including Gahanna and Olentangy have outfitted rooms with beds and home appliances. The two schools run by the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities will switch their focus to job training and independent living after next school year.

"There's a recognition that there needs to be significant improvement with transition planning in Ohio," said Susan Tobin, chief legal counsel for Disability Rights Ohio, an advocacy group. "It's not just reading and math. It's about behavior and being able to function in a community as independently as possible."

Statewide efforts to make improvements include a law passed this year requiring teachers to begin talking with students and families sooner about life after school. Gov. John Kasich also called on government groups to do a better job of finding meaningful work for those with disabilities.

It's a problem across the country, too, according to a report released this year by the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, which found that those who struggled often didn't know about resources available to them.

In Gahanna, Kemph said, the problem is that students often master the technical skills needed to hold a job, but struggle to fit in socially with their colleagues. In the new space, students take turns cooking meals for each other, but then hone social skills when they gather at the dining table to eat.

They also spend at least one night a month at a house that the district shares with another program, where for 24 hours they live mostly on their own. "That's very unique," said Jed Morison, superintendent of the developmental disabilities board.

Gahanna has built its program over 20 years, but some districts -- especially rural ones -- struggle to find resources, Tobin said. And leaders largely don't know how well schools are doing because the state tracks compliance with the law, not its outcomes, she said.

The program in Gahanna tracks success on a mural of a tree, with the names of those who have graduated written on leaves. Tull, a senior who calls herself the "big dog" of the program, hopes her name is added before long.

She has learned to use her right hand because a disability affecting the right side of her brain makes it difficult to use the left. Although she isn't ready to leave home yet, she wants to live in an apartment alone or with roommates, a goal that teacher Tiffany Hanna said she will achieve.

It's a goal that, with the right work, many more will reach, Morison said.

"We as professionals in the field have learned over time that we can have greater expectations," he said. "We can do even better."

@cbinkley ___

(c)2012 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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